If you’ve been visiting RipTen this week, you no doubt have noticed our intense interest in Skylanders Giants. Activision and Toys for Bob managed to defy expectations last year, finding success in a game that requires a fairly hefty investment even if you just want one character in each element to access every area. When I was at Toys R Us this morning to fill in my collection, it became clear why the series is such a hit. Each and every family there (and the place was quite busy) was full of enthusiasm and excitement. Parents were just as eager to get home and put the new figures on the portal and begin the latest adventure.

In conversation with a number of these families, one obvious question popped up over and over. “Is Giants as good as Spyro’s Adventure?” I was pleased to report to them (and to you) that Skylanders Giants is unequivocally improved over the initial outing, but probably not for the reasons you might expect.

I’m forced to wonder if I would be as enamored of Skylanders if I didn’t have children the perfect age to enjoy it. I’ve watched my son’s gaming prowess improve by leaps and bounds after playing Spyro’s Adventure for an entire year (and I say that without exaggeration). My daughter’s involvement has fluctuated, but watching her play with her brother recently has been a delight to watch. Now that Giants is here, it’s all aboard the hype train.

The story picks up where the last game ended. The villain of the tale, Kaos, has made his way back to Skylands. Upon his return, he stumbles across an ancient Arkeyan Conquertron robot (brilliantly voiced by George Takei). Thankfully, these oppressors of yore have heroic opposite numbers, the Skylander Giants.

One of the biggest hooks of the sequel is the inclusion of super-sized figures that are immensely powerful, but are more ponderous in their movements. No longer will you need to scrounge for bombs to blow up weak walls (though you can). The Giants are massive enough to deal with them in short order. There are eight of these (not including retailer-exclusive variants), with one representing each element (Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Life, Undead, Tech and Magic). If you purchase any version of the game on any platform (regardless of whether you are coming in new with the Starter pack or returning and opt for the Portal Master version), you’ll get Tree Rex, the life giant. Heed my advice; if you have more than one child, plan on purchasing at least one more $15 giant. Before I added to my collection, the kids fought over who was going to get to use the bark-skinned bruiser.

The game is designed well enough that should you happen to find yourself without a giant (which can happen if you let Tree Rex’s life wind down to nothing), you can still proceed. For instance, in an early level, you can use the strength of one of the enormous beasts to pull in a ship. Alternatively, you can play the new Eye of Judgment-esque mini-game Sky Stones and defeat the boat master to get him to reel in the vessel.

There are moments that are certainly made easier by swapping in a giant, but they are never necessary. If it weren’t for the fact that the character designs are absolutely fantastic, it would be easy to recommend avoiding them all together. Right out of the gate, you can’t even get them all, and the one I’ve got my eye on (get ready to realize how bad that pun is), Eye Brawl, won’t even be released for a while. Half of the giants have been held back for a future wave. Additionally, four of the eight new regular-sized characters won’t be rolling out right away, sort of.

That’s where the trickiness of Skylanders comes into play. If you thought that retailer-exclusive pre-order bonuses were annoying, your head will likely spin at the handling of figure variants. We’ve got a couple of stories up that detail the whole roster of figures for this game, along with the ones that are available at launch. You don’t need figures like the Toys R Us legendary versions or the Target-exclusive Granite deco of earth giant Crusher. The stats are slightly improved, but the impact in-game is negligible. These baseline bonuses are made even more insignificant with the inclusion of even more stat-boosting hats than the original adventure.

There are an enormous number of caps, bowlers, sombreros and… plungers available, each of which will add to your Skylanders’ speed, armor and elemental power (added bonus for using a character in a zone that shares its element). Furthermore, new heroic challenges will give you permanent boosts. Hats and challenges can be unlocked by spending cash at a merchant shop now, which gives us something to do with our mountain of treasure.